Meet the Maestro: Kah Chun Wong9:00, 12th July 2016
Military service was the catalyst for the young conductor who took first prize at this year’s Mahler Competition in Bamberg. He talks to Toby Deller
Like many who end up with conducting as their careers, the Singaporean Kah Chun Wong admits to first waving his arms to music as a young child – in his case, larking about with his primary schoolmates during breaks from music practice (he was a trumpeter). Fewer see these initial efforts start to blossom in the armed forces.
‘I think I really started considering becoming a professional conductor when I was in the military,’ he explains, referring to his two years’ mandatory military service that he spent as a bandsman. ‘From then, I started to write my own music, and of course when you write your own music you have to find a conductor, and it wasn’t so easy to find someone who wanted to conduct some young composer’s first pieces of music. So I had to be the one responsible for all the rehearsals. This became something I was very curious to explore.’
The composing he developed as an undergraduate at Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory before, in the absence of a programme there, he decided to look overseas to tackle conducting. ‘I wanted to go to the States to study, mainly because usually the schools in the US have scholarships available. So this is actually quite an embarrassment to mention, but I auditioned for a number of schools in the US and I didn’t get into any of them – I flunked my entrance examinations. It just turned out that when the results were announced, I think it was at the end of March or the beginning of April, I went online to see whether there were any more schools that I could apply to. I found the Hanns-Eisler Musikhochschule.’
He made the trip to the Berlin college to audition, taking the opportunity for some musical tourism in Dresden and Leipzig at the same time, and was accepted, going on to study with Christian Ehwald and Hans-Dieter Baum. ‘Being in Berlin makes a big difference to any young conductor because the Berlin Philharmonic is there, the Konzerthaus orchestra is there, the State Opera, the Deutsche Oper is there, which means that any day at any point in time there would be a rehearsal going on with one of the best conductors in the world. I would just run away to one of the halls and ask for permission to attend one of the rehearsals and just sit in a corner with my scores. And I think those few years of doing this really gave me 90% of what I know right now.’
Wong did make it to the US in the end, to study for two summers on the conducting programme at the Aspen Music Festival working with Roberto Spano and over five years at Kurt Masur’s international conducting seminars in Manhattan. He has had guidance from Esa-Pekka Salonen and Bernard Haitink too, so it is a conductor with some pedigree who won first prize in the 2016 Mahler Competition in Bamberg.
‘This competition was so well run. It felt more like a kind of masterclass than a competition. Of course there was a kind of pressure – there were 14 very qualified young conductors in the same room. But the organisation was in a way that we all felt like we were working with the orchestra in a very normal, usual concert setting rather than in a competition setting with ten or 15 minutes to prove ourselves.’
It has already brought him offers of work – when we spoke he was preparing to deputise at a couple of weeks’ notice for Jesús López-Cobos in concerts in China. But closer to home, he still attends to his own ensemble, the Asian Contemporary Ensemble, that he set up while a student in Singapore. ‘I was studying composition, my colleagues were studying composition and we always found it hard to have our works performed by musicians who are interested in new music in Singapore then. Now it’s quite different, I must say. But in those days if we wanted to do something it just made sense that we would form our own group to perform a few concerts of our work.’
The ensemble now incorporates Asian instruments, providing greater scope to the composers who write for it, and Wong is developing a community music project called MusiCare. ‘This is something I really want to focus on: to develop a kind of social responsibility with artists to contribute back to our community, especially to people who might not be able to easily access concert halls.’
The ensemble has started touring abroad – its first tour was to Hong Kong – and will be visiting this year’s Asian Composers Conference in Vietnam.
1986 Born Singapore
2011 Graduates Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
2011 Begins masters at the Hanns-Eisler Musikhochschule, Berlin
2011-13 Conducting assistant Singapore Chinese Orchestra
2011-12 Conducting fellow American Academy for Conducting, Aspen Music Festival
2013 First prize, Fourth International Conducting Competition ‘Jeunesses Musicales’, Bucharest
2015 Debut with Singapore Symphony
2016 First prize, Mahler Competition, Bamberg